Dame Judi Dench will receive an Oscar nomination for her work in “Iris.” With the might of Miramax — the studio that successfully pimped her for three nods and one win — yet again behind her, it’s irrelevant as to whether or not she or the film is any good. The fact that she plays a role that is practically rubber-stamped “Oscar Bait” — real-life literary genius tragically stricken with a terminal ailment — is mere icing on the cake.
To give credit where it’s due, Dench does turn in a characteristically good (though not so good as to make her inevitable Oscar nod deserved) performance as Iris Murdoch, a renowned British novelist and philosopher, who fatally succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease in 1999. More than simply nailing someone’s mental meltdown, she nails the mental meltdown of someone once blessed with a brilliant mind. As Iris struggles with the words that once used to come so easily to her, Dench is convincing and poignant, and she is matched well by Jim Broadbent, who plays Iris’ ever-faithful husband, lecturer John Bayley.
But their nice turns cannot make “Iris” feel like much more than a glacially-paced disease-of-the-week movie blown up to big screen size. The illness, and not the person suffering from it, cannot help but feel like the main focus given the shallow and fragmented approach director Richard Eyre and writing collaborator Charles Wood take to Murdoch’s life. Her life’s work — touched simply through passing references to how great it is — takes a back seat to the Iris/John relationship, which is also depicted through numerous flashbacks (Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville play the young Iris and John, respectively). Not necessarily a bad idea, but instead of enriching our understanding of either of these people, the flashbacks bring up new questions: most prominently, what exactly was it that drew the sexy, spirited young Iris to the nerdy and hopelessly awkward John? Also not helping is the disconnect between the two incarnations of Iris; while Broadbent and Bonneville are amazingly seamless in appearance and temperament as John, Winslet’s spunky, carefree Iris doesn’t seem to be the same character as Dench’s aside from their shared name and awful haircut. Granted, Dench’s Iris is ill, but Eyre doesn’t show the audience enough of her feistiness in old age before the illness takes hold; not long at all after the character is introduced, old Iris’ decline starts — and so do Dench’s Oscar clips. Ultimately, the film is less “Iris” than “Judi,” and given the intent behind the film’s strategic release position, that’s what seems to matter most to the ‘Max, anyway.